Here Comes the Judge

This week I judged about 25 entries for a fiction-writing contest at an upcoming writers’ conference at which I’m also doing a workshop. My task was to name first-place and second-place choices.

I found 2 that I could honestly say deserved a “win.” Now, each of these 25 or so writers did the best they could. They imagined, and revised, and polished, and sent in their story. I’m sure not all of them expected to win, but I’m equally sure that most of them thought they had a chance—otherwise why submit?

Twice a week, I judge submissions to my blog, Flogging the Quill, on whether or not I would turn the first page. I’d say that, overall, I turn the page on maybe 3% of the submissions. I should note that FtQ’s readers never agree with me 100%. They are frequently far more generous than I am.

Many of us have faced the toughest judges in the business, literary agents. I think my take on what is good storytelling/writing comes close to theirs—I’ve judged over 600 opening chapters for the blog, and, let me tell you, your eye becomes quickly trained to see what works and what doesn’t work. Agents and editors will tell you that they can usually reach a yes/no decision on the first page. I believe them.

So I got to thinking: what are the criteria in my mind that entries needed to meet in order to be successful storytelling? Are they the same criteria you use? And do we apply the same criteria to our own writing?

The main criterion isn’t, really, good writing. That’s the price of entry, the foundation upon which a good story can be built. You don’t get any credit for good language/grammar/etc. from me or an agent or an editor. It makes a “yes” decision possible, but that’s all.


I guess my primary criterion is “engagement.” Am I engaged/captured/gripped by the words and deeds on the page, by the emotional reaction they create in me? The fundamental factors that work toward creating engagement for me are:

Story. Something is happening, a story is taking place. It’s in a place I can see, and there are people doing things. Story is something happening. If nothing much is happening I’m outta there, no matter the quality of the writing.

A scene: That’s how a good writer shows what is happening, what I call an “immediate” scene. It’s not a summary of information, it’s not exposition, it’s not what happened then, it is what is happening now. In a scene. With movement, dialogue, and things that cause that lovely “what happens next” tension in me.

Voice: I frequently read where agents name “voice” as the number one thing that pulls them in. I can see that. Voice can translate into a personality of the story, and we all react to likeable personalities. There have been times when the voice in a piece got me to turn the page even though there wasn’t high tension in the narrative. Voice can be a hugely engaging factor.

But if a narrative lacks a distinct voice, does it fail? Will it not engage a reader? I don’t think so. Straightforward, workmanlike writing that creates a lively scene with fascinating things happening will serve just fine.

Of the two entries that I voted for in the contest, the first-place winner started with a first-person narration, a fine way to introduce voice. Even though the third paragraph turned to a brief visit with something in the past, it was still part of a scene, and the opening paragraphs established a strong story question that made me want to know what would happen next. So all the elements were there—a scene, voice, and story.

The second-place story was science fiction and also opened with something happening. It used good description to quickly introduce three interesting characters—one alien splashing down on Earth and two people impacted by it–and raise the story question: what will happen between these characters? The writing had a clear, confident voice, too.

As an editor, I’m also a judge of every line and word in a manuscript, and I can tell you that critiquing those hundreds of blog submissions and editing a number of full-length manuscripts have sharpened my eye for my own fiction. They have created within me a restless, impatient demand for good stuff and nothing but good stuff that is just as sharply judgmental of my own writing as it is of others.

What about you? Has judging (in one way or another) sharpened your inner sense of whether or not your own writing has, indeed, got the good stuff?

For what it’s worth.

Image by gruenemann.


About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website,, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at


  1. says

    Thanks Ray!

    This is a wonderful summary of what agents and contest judges are looking for when they read our submissions. Your post gives me a lot to think about when I’m writing, but especially when I’m revising my stories.

  2. says

    I often wonder how the Classics stack up against our modern literary parameters. The bar is raised so high today. As life kicks into overdrive we, the public, want the center of the sandwich handed straight to us. If not, our attention rapidly wanders to the next promising treat–there are so many to choose from!

    Great advice. Web sites that critique, like yours, have honed me into a word-terminator, lol. It’s a good thing. :)

  3. says

    Great post! Building slowly is a rookie mistake made even by writers who have mastered the technical side of the art, but contest judges look for the same thing agents and editors do: a reason to read the next page. The classic opening lines of Snoopy’s Great American Novel “It was a dark and stormy night. A shot rang out!” actually do the job–after all, they give you a scene and an action, exactly what readers need. Shakespeare used it (sort of).

    And you are right about how judging makes the eye critical; I would suggest to any writer wanting to conquer the first page that she go out and read the first page of her hundred favorite books. For anyone who wants to look at a lot of new writer’s first pages (first 7,000 words, really), I recommend signing up on It is a wonderful resource for accessing good, indifferent, and bad new writing.

  4. Denise Willson says

    A print worthy post, Ray, thank you.

    I struggle to disconnect my inner critic to read these days. I don’t consider this is a good thing. While it helps me learn as a writer, it reeks havoc on the entertainment front. And really, isn’t this what books are for? My all-time favorite book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, didn’t grip me from page one. Had I read 50 Shades of Grey at a time my head was critiquing, I’d have missed the larger-than-life characters that fascinated the masses. Even my beloved Harry Potter put me to sleep at times. When I think of all the amazing stories I could have dismissed before they’d bloomed, it makes me sad. It would be like picking friends based on a first encounter.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  5. says

    I know what you mean, Denise. I’ve read novels that I ultimately liked a lot that I had to start and restart several times. But I think Sol Stein’s experience in watching bookstore browsers is the ultimate criteria for opening a story–he found that they never scanned more than 3 pages, usually less, before either putting the book down or taking it to the cashier.

    • Denise Willson says

      Absolutely, Ray, but who’s to say what caught the eye of the buyer, and what turned the other off? Maybe the protagonist was male and the reader prefers female leads. Maybe the opening had a dead body and the reader’s best friend just died. Maybe the vocabulary felt like work. Maybe the genre was too similar to the last book, or the book read two months ago. Maybe it’s Tuesday, and work was shitty… ;)

      Don’t get me wrong, I agree with your thoughts on openings. I’ve even printed your post to refer to when writing / editing my first pages. As writers, we owe it to our readers to do our very best work, from page one. I suppose I’m only suggesting another side to the coin. Books, like all entertainment, are very subjective.

      Denise Willson
      Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  6. Stacey Kothe says

    Great post! As a novice writer I am constantly working toward ways to make my story interesting and engaging for the reader, asking myself what it is that keeps the reader reading and does my story keep their attention and make them want to read more. I like to have opening lines that grab the attention, characters that are real and human, and ending chapters that make the reader say “no you can’t stop there.”
    I have also found myself being more critical of the books that I read as well. I recently finished reading a series from one of my favorite writers. Disappointed that the series was over I started back at book one. I found it very interesting rereading the first book at how the writing had actually grown and noticed certain passages that I know the author would probably change now, and how I would write those scenes differently.
    I can also understand how judging and helping others actually helps your own critical eye. I have seen this in myself on many occasions, not so much in judging writing, but in teaching and coaching others. When watching and listening to others you see things from a different perspective which changes your view and hopefully improves your own work.

  7. says

    Thanks for this post, Ray. I’m a new author with my first book, Dirty Laundry, due to be released in December 2012. Before submitting it to Abbott Press for publishing, I had other writers and an editor read the first chapter. They all said the same thing:

    From the first line I wanted to keep going – I wanted to know what happened to Marly.

    That statement is burned in my mind for future book. Action and a reason to keep reading from the start.

  8. says

    Thanks, Ray. I have been a contest judge a few times and I’ve come to understand that not only do the entries vary widely in quality, the judges vary widely in taste.
    In the last contest I judged two books I couldn’t finish reading made it into the top ten.
    This is a great post.

  9. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Helpful stuff here, to file and read again. Thank you.

    As for your question: “Has judging (in one way or another) sharpened your inner sense of whether or not your own writing has, indeed, got the good stuff?”

    For me the answer is yes and no. Sometimes I feel I write on target, other times I realize I”m too close to the work to really see it clearly.

  10. says

    I haven’t participated as a judge anywhere, but reading blogs that critique queries or the first page of a manuscript has, I think, sharpened me and made me more aware of what tends to resonate with agents, editors, etc. Of course, there are cases where I don’t agree, and there are plenty of novels I enjoy that have first pages I find boring, but I hope it has given me a better general sense of what to do. If anything, I’ve learned the importance of not infodumping as an introduction, and try to avoid that even when there is backstory to explain.

  11. says

    I totally agree that the first few pages sells or fails to sell the book. Certainly the opening of Carson McCuller’s THE BALLAD of the SAD CAFE, my most recent book purchase, sold me. I didn’t bother reading the entire free sample before downloading the entire book. Same with the book I bought a few days ago, Donna Leon’s A SEA OF TROUBLES. The delightful characters and voice jumped from the first pages of The HOMECOMING OF SAMUEL LAKE by Jenny Wingfield and demanded I buy and read the book.
    After reading this blog, I reread the opening pages of these three and, guess what? Not one scene.
    I won’t name names, but I also returned to the samples of those I had passed over–those I could remember. Lots of scenes. Lots of characters doing sneaky, risky, dangerous, scandalous things. Each time I felt like I was being played with and moved on to something more authentic.
    For me and my little sample, Denise Willson was right on the mark when she argued, above, that you can’t tell from watching a person browsing bookshelves what it is about those first pages that grabs them

  12. says

    Thank you for this, Ray. As an entrant in this year’s Readers’ Favourite Book Awards, I have often wondered what the judges’ criteria would be and how firmly applied.

    Excitingly, my novel, a fantasy, won the silver medal but despite the rewarding judges’ review, I was still keen to find out that criteria.

    What you have said is the perfect mantra for good story-telling, not just judging. Cheers.

  13. Ronda Roaring says

    I appreciate your post. But it has, as have many others, angered me. I’m not sure the type of fiction you and a lot of other writers talk about is what I want to write. I’m currently reading Fifty Shades of Grey, which would fit your description perfectly. It’s so…it makes me laugh. But ten years from now, it will be considered just another cheesy novel of the first part of the 21st century. Alexander McCall Smith, who has written perhaps 60 novels (all of which would meet your criteria), once said that he would rather write/publish a lot of mediocre (my word, not his) fiction than one great novel. I’m beyond the money and the fame. I want to write that one great novel.

    Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who most of you have probably never heard of, wrote only one novel in his life–Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). Italy considers him their greatest novelist, a national treasure, and the book was never even published during his lifetime. People will be reading that novel for centuries. And, yet, I suspect it doesn’t meet your criteria. It’s deep, brooding, not terribly exciting from a plot perspective, but it definitely has a message I remember.

    Ray, when you come up with that one great novel, let me know. I’ll want to read it. But until then…

  14. says

    Ronda, I’m afraid I don’t understand your anger at me wanting a story that has, well, story plus something happening and a strong voice. Can you give me a reason why a story without those things is somehow better storytelling? I can’t think of a single reason why a great novel can’t or shouldn’t have those elements, or why having those elements present at the start mean it can’t be a great novel.

    • Ronda Roaring says

      Ray, you shouldn’t take this personally. Perhaps I’m tired of novels I feel are rather predictable, formulaic you might say. Does everything have to be done this way. If someone does it differently, does that “violate” the rules and make it inappropriate, undesirable, worthy of little merit?

  15. says

    Ray, as usual, you’re bang on. You’ve described exactly what I’ve been trying to accomplish in my own fiction and what I imagine many others are trying as well: writing what I want to read or writing what’s just not out there (yet). Too many times I’ve been left wanting more out of a novel that just sags with needless details that either amount to nothing or are weighed down by bad pacing. Great post.

  16. says

    Ronda, I, too, don’t care for novels that are predictable, etc. What I’m talking about is storytelling technique and craft. I’m not saying what to do, I’m talking about ways you can shape your writing and storytelling to achieve engagement with someone like me, who has seen hundreds of openings. None of these approaches prohibits creativity. In my book, Flogging the Quill, I say that there are no rules. If you succeed in hooking me in a story while you break all of the supposed “rules,” that’s fine with me. I think you’re tarring my views with antipathy that is more fairly directed somewhere else.

  17. says

    Deciding whether or not a story will win a prize — and that’s the only thing you are really talking about, a prize, not a book contract — on the basis of a story’s first page, allows you to skip reading hundreds of pages of text. It’s a good job if you can get it.

    But insofar as there is a mistaken conflation of the criteria for a prize and the criteria used by agents and editors to decide on whether to take a book on, I need to chime in.

    A work submitted for a prize cannot be read in the same way as a book submitted for publication to an agent or an editor . The former is presumed to be in its final polished state. The latter is presumed not to be in its final polished state. That is why literary agencies have inhouse editors or freelancers, as do publishing houses, to EDIT books. That includes cutting the first page entirely or having the writer revise it.

    On submission, a good agent or editor would consider the book’s potential and assess how much editing it would take to realize that potential. Dismissing a book on the basis of the first page alone is arrogant and lazy.

    However, the publishing industry has its fair share of arrogant and lazy employees. And its smart for writers to assume that’s the kind who will be reading their work.

  18. says

    Thanks for this concise explanation, Ray. I, too, have judged a lot of fiction manuscripts – not quite reaching 500 though – for both chapter contests and now as an executive editor of a small press, Buzz Books. Story and voice are my two biggies. I like the advice I heard years ago about starting your book at Chapter 3 so it cuts all the backstory, and that’s when things start happening. I often read a sub where it starts with action but then after the first page or so they do the info dump and I stop reading.
    Wrapped into Story, if the writer nails Character, Setting and Dialogue, I’ll usually keep reading, at least until something stops happening. Nothing pulls me out of it faster than weak dialogue and vague Where the Hell Are We and Who Are You?
    I agree judging helps our own writing immensely, but I am ever so thankful for editors and crit partners to point out things I may not have seen.